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Must They 'Tremble Before G-d'?
* Documentary * The film describes the anguish of men and women trying to reconcile their homosexuality and Orthodox Jewish religion.

Los Angeles Times  Wednesday February 20, 2002
Home Edition  Calendar  Part F  Page 2  Calendar Desk | 29 inches;  1069 words

   Sandi Simcha DuBowski's slight frame slumps, his face and shoulders
barely registering over the tabletop at a Santa Monica restaurant.
His fingers shred a piece of bread until only a mound of crumbs
remains. Catching himself, he apologizes in a voice so soft that a
reporter must lean forward to hear him.

   Not exactly the image of a man who just directed a film that's
stirring controversy in his own religious community. And yet that's
what DuBowski, 31, has done with his film about gays in the Orthodox
Jewish community, a film that's tested his faith. "Trembling Before
G-d," (Orthodox Jews believe that writing out God's name is a sin),
is an 84-minute documentary opening today in Los Angeles and over the
next two weeks in San Francisco, San Diego and Las Vegas.

   Since debuting in New York in October, then opening in Boston,
Philadelphia, Washington and Baltimore, the film has lighted one fire
after another. A New York Times review said, "DuBowski latches on to
a provocative subject and invests it with a compelling tenderness ...
unforgettable," and Newsday called it "Haunted. Eloquent.

   The negative reaction has been equally strong. Mexico City's
Jewish Federation banned it from its film festival, the international
ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel denounced it as "Dissembling
Before G-d" and protesters stormed the lobby of Baltimore's Charles
Theater when it opened there.

   Locally, Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of Congregation B'nai David-Judea
plans to screen the film for select members of his Orthodox Westside

   Before viewing an early version of the film, Kanefsky said, "I had
never really thought about the issue." Now, after seeing it, he says,
"The film is potentially very important. Hopefully, it will trigger
thoughtful discussion in our community, which is behind the rest of
American society" in acknowledging gay lives.

   Still, Kanefsky would discourage any gay member from coming out to
his congregation. "It's nonproductive," he said. "I'm not sure that
the larger community would react constructively." And like Rabbi
Steve Weil of Congregation Beth Jacob in Beverly Hills, the West's
largest Orthodox synagogue, Kanefsky believes that Jewish law
prohibits gay sex under all circumstances. (The Conservative and
Reform branches of Judaism largely accept gay sexuality).

   This, in a nutshell, is the windmill against which DuBowski has
tilted. Not that this only son of a Brooklyn syrup manufacturer who
came out to his parents at age 18 with only minor discomfort--his
parents were Conservative Jews--would seem the most likely candidate
for this job.  It started six years ago, when DuBowski, fresh out of
Harvard, met Mark Silas, a rabbi's son turned drag queen in New York.

   "Mark and I became brothers," says DuBowski, a New York filmmaker.
Which was fortunate because DuBowski, by then interested in making a
film about the subject, found it "virtually impossible" to find other
gay Orthodox Jews willing to go on record.

   DuBowski filmed Silas visiting the rabbis under whom he had
studied and eventually found other candidates for his film. One is
Israel Fishman, a 58-year-old Manhattan printer who had written to
his 98-year-old father requesting a meeting to end their 20-year
estrangement. Fishman's father wrote back that he could not yet see
his son but would talk with him on the phone.

   The film listens in on the approximately 90-second call, nearly
all of it Fishman's father telling how busy he is with
synagogue-oriented tasks and so still has no time to see his son.
What comes through is the father's dread, his high-pitched tone and
frantic pace forming a verbal wall. We witness the younger Fishman's
slumped reaction but cannot miss hearing his father's terror. The
father died a year later, never reconciling with his son, says

   Also profiled is a woman married 20 years who has borne her
husband seven children. She can no longer stand her husband's sexual
touch. In shadow, she tells how she proposed that she and her husband
forgo sex, an idea he has vetoed.

   Coming apart before our eyes, she admits feeling guilty that she
can't satisfy her husband. Nor can she bear to leave the Orthodox
community she considers her home. And so she continues to live as a
conventional Orthodox Jewish wife.

   It's hard to witness this and not be moved by her conflict, which
in a sense became a problem for DuBowski as a filmmaker. With 450
hours of film, he found it increasingly difficult to maintain a
proper distance from his subjects, even as he repeatedly traveled to
Israel to interview the country's top rabbis. Some of them refused to
meet with him; others hung up on him in mid-conversation.

   Finally, as is traditional, he arrived at 4 a.m. to line up for an
audience in Jerusalem with Israel's chief Sephardic rabbi. Hours
later, DuBowski asked the rabbi for guidance on the matter. "The
rabbi replied that homosexuality is an animalistic abomination," says
DuBowski. "What could I say?"

   The rabbi's reaction deeply troubled DuBowski. Was he, he
wondered, somehow damaging his own religion by being gay and
challenging Orthodox values? (DuBowski now considers himself an
Orthodox Jew). Should he marry even though he feels no attraction to
women? Is abstinence or a contrived heterosexuality the path to the
Orthodox holy life he craves? It could not be, he decided.

   "The film made me appreciate my parents more," he said. "They
always honored me, no matter what."

   DuBowski sees his film as a rite of passage. "Before, I kept many
parts of my life separate. This film brought it all together. Now I'm
a man for all the right reasons."

   The film, initially scheduled for a two-week run after its Oct. 24
opening in New York, is still playing there. Likewise, it's still
running strong four weeks after opening at the Charles Theater in
Baltimore, where it had been booked for just one week.

   "We took a chance on it and have done very well," says Charles
Theater owner Buzz Cusack. "It's a beautiful film."

PHOTO: Sandi Simcha DuBowski directed the film "Trembling
Before G-d."
PHOTOGRAPHER: New Yorker Films
PHOTO: One of the people featured in "Trembling Before G-d"
is Mark Silas, far right, as he visits rabbis under whom he studied
at Yeshiva in Israel.
PHOTOGRAPHER: New Yorker Films

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